Healthy Food for a Healthy World — Agriculture, Food Systems and Global Nutrition

By Adriana Selwyn and Derek Yach

“The raising of cattle requires much more land than the raising of cereals, fruits, nuts and vegetables, yielding the same amount of food value. As this will be a most important economic problem during the next hundred years, the question of the character of our food supply should be most carefully considered in the study of the conservation of natural resources.”

These words, highlighting the link between unsustainable consumption of animal products and the consequences on human, economic and environmental health, featured in the 1909 Report on National Vitality: Its Wastes and Conservation, commissioned by President Roosevelt as part of a larger examination into the conservation of natural resources. Today, over 100 years later, having failed to heed this advice, we are faced with a global nutrition crisis.

While great progress has been made in improving access to safe and nutritious foods, malnutrition (both undernutrition and obesity) remains a serious challenge. Over 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger, and roughly two billion suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. A growing double burden of malnutrition, with 1.9 billion people overweight, places unprecedented demands on healthcare systems, whilst lost productivity and costs of diet-related diseases threaten economic sustainability.   

These issues form the basis of the Chicago Council for Global Affairs new report, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to Improve Global Nutrition,” released today as part of the Council’s annual Global Food Security Symposium (livestreamed here). Overall, the symposium discusses progress on addressing crucial issues of global food and nutrition security. This year, with the focus on addressing food systems for better health, the report outlines the unique position of agriculture and food systems in solving these challenges. Opportunities to improve food production, distribution, and wastage can increase access to nutrient-rich foods and drive economic growth for billions of farming households, particularly in low-income countries where agriculture generates one third of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs two-thirds of the labor force.

However, major challenges remain.

The goals of agriculture, food systems and human health must be realigned. Global food systems must be reshaped if we are to address challenges of population growth, urbanization, climate change and scarce water and land resources, in order to provide healthy diets whilst ensuring economic and environmental sustainability.

The report stresses the need for urgent action and radical solutions; and, as the causes of malnutrition span many sectors, the need for broad, multi-sector collaboration –  sentiments echoed in the 2009 address by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the World Food Prize Symposium, where she called for partnerships between governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs and corporations to resolve the misalignment of nutrition and agriculture. Nooyi offered solutions to ensure nutritious food reached those in greatest need, including improving financial access for small-holder farmers and leveraging the expertise of food companies, for example in formulating products to incentivize healthier eating by creating nutritious food that also tastes good.

Advances in science and technology must also be harnessed. The Wellcome Trust’s report, Vital Connections: Science, Society and Sustaining Health, discusses how technological advances, such as crop biofortification, satellite imagery and precision farming, can contribute to improved nutrition and more efficient agricultural practices. Genetic research into plant resilience is crucial to respond to climate change and biodiversity losses. Even simple measures such as cultivating more nitrogen-fixing crops, for example chickpeas and pulses, show substantial benefits owing to high nutrient contents and reduced need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. Eliminating food waste would benefit those with inadequate access to fresh food and at the same time reduce both carbon dioxide emissions by 10% and the amount of land used for agriculture by 30%.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Sustainable Diets report demonstrates the benefits of consumer shifts towards healthy dietary patterns emphasizing plant-based foods. Incentives offered in the Vitality HealthyFood program led to greater healthy food purchases. The environmental benefits of these changes, specifically more fruit and vegetables and less beef and pork, were reductions in land use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Recommendations outlined in the Chicago Council report reiterate those in the UK Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming. Current food systems are unsustainable and failing to meet the needs of the populations they serve. Interconnected, nutrition-sensitive policies are critical and decisive action is needed now.

The 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting will take place this November in Paris. We urge members to ensure agriculture, food systems and health are central to the conversation. The health of the population and planet depend on it.


Derek Yach is Member of the Chicago Council for Global Affairs Committee on the Global Agricultural Development Initiative.

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